NEWPORT How difficult is it to represent the Biden administration in Kentucky’s rural and red boroughs? It’s actually not that bad, said US Commerce Secretary and former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, at least when you’re there to dole out more than a billion dollars in federal funding for broadband Internet.
Raimondo participates in a national tour promoting the federal government’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, which will provide more than $42 billion in funding for underserved and underserved areas of the United States to renew their bandwidth infrastructure wide.
At the Newport Housing Authority’s Donovan Manor on Friday, Raimondo said he saved the best for last as he finished his national tour in his home state, navigating that federal funding surge on a beautiful summer day in Newport to discuss how they will draw benefit the Rhode Islanders $108.7 million in BEAD funding.
Federal funding will be distributed through RI Commerce, using a points-based nomination rubric with priority given to underserved or underserved areas as identified by FCC maps, to nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, private corporations, public service providers, and local governments to make sure every Rhode Islander has access to reliable and affordable high-speed Internet.
Sens. Reed and Whitehouse successfully lobbied for a “state minimum” BEAD award of $100 million
Raimondo noted in his remarks that Rhode Island’s $108.7 million award was a result of Rhode Island overstepping its weight in Washington, DC, while Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed, who were both in attendance Friday, they successfully rallied other states with smaller geographic areas and populations to secure a much higher minimum funding envelope than the initially proposed funding formula would have offered Little Rhody.
The state government estimates that approximately 3,000 households in Rhode Island are not fully served by broadband Internet. The $100 million award is more than enough funding to provide infrastructure upgrades to serve those families, so there is scope for much of the funding to be used for school districts, community centers, and boys’ and girls’ clubs in underserved neighborhoods. public libraries and local housing authorities.
Newports Donovan Manor is an example of the transformative power of high-speed Internet access
There are many locations in Rhode Island that are underserved and underserved, including many on Aquidneck Island, which is why we are here today, Raimondo said. She and other speakers mentioned the digital divide between people who can afford to access the internet and people who cannot, and stressed that in the modern world the internet is not a luxury but a necessity for students, members of the workforce and seniors who do rely on a strong service to communicate with their doctors and families.
Donovan Manor, a 110-unit affordable housing development off of Memorial Boulevard, had its broadband Internet infrastructure installed in 2021 after HiLo Neighborhood Association president Tommy Sheehan and a team of local activists applied through the state for a $980,000 community development block grant.
Before that, said Donovan Manor resident Anne-Marie Pacheco, some residents in low-income units coughed up $85 a month at Cox for their Internet, and many simply ran out. Now, every resident of the building has free Wi-Fi.
We now have free internet and I got rid of Cox. I save $85 a month. And the internet is very fast, you can do anything with it, Pacheco said. He said the cost savings are the biggest benefit, noting that many of his neighbors who couldn’t pay Cox are now able to communicate with their families more regularly.
I have two grandchildren who live in Florida and just lost their mother to cancer a year ago, said one of Pacheco’s neighbors who was sitting next to her, a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old who has autism. Now I am able to FaceTime them and I can see them more than before.
The grant will provide fixed wireless broadband service to a total of approximately 600 residential units on Newport Housing Authority properties, benefiting nearly 1,200 residents, and will also add internet capacity to the Florence Gray Center, a working-class mainstay in Newport North Community end used by organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newport County.
Defining which areas are “underserved” and who is “underserved” is a key piece of the funding puzzle
The Newport Daily News asked Raimondo to explain in layman’s terms how the government would determine who is underserved and who is underserved before RI Commerce begins accepting applications and disbursing funds, potentially as early as summer 2024.
Not served means no internet, he explained. There is no company providing services in that region. Underserved means you can get it, but its low quality is a bad connection. This is our priority: first nothing was needed, then little served, where you can get it but maybe you can’t do Zoom, you can’t stream.
He said the next category of headings was accessibility, leading the Daily News to investigate whether areas of Rhode Island that are served by one supplier and thus are trapped in an uncompetitive or monopolistic market could be considered underserved on Aquidneck Island , Cox is the only broadband provider, and therefore has a great deal of autonomy in setting prices in the absence of a competitive market.
Go online:Parts of Aquidneck Island are “underserved” when it comes to broadband. How could it change
Yes and no, said Raimondo. It depends on the quality they provide. If it is a monopolistic supplier providing poor quality service, then we can deal with this money. Or, a monopolistic supplier providing services at an absolutely unaffordable price, then that’s something we can deal with.
We want to encourage competition where possible, he continued, and we want to hold accountable the suppliers who will receive our money.
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